By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO
RIO DE JANEIRO -- A year after the Brazilian government
dismissed studies warning that parts of the Amazon rain forest were
becoming so dry they could burn uncontrollably, fires have become a
greater threat than ever to intact rain forest and to indigenous peoples,
according to environmental groups that monitor the Amazon.
The fires are
set by ranchers and farmers to clear land for grazing and
planting, but are burning out of control at an alarming rate, environmental
groups say, due in large part to the drying effect of El Nino.
The number of
fires has more than doubled since last year, according to
the government's own figures. Last year, 7,800 square miles of rain forest
caught fire, the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts said.
Until rains doused
flames in Mato Grosso this month, fire appeared set to
engulf the Xingu National Park, which houses 5,000 indigenous people
belonging to 17 tribes. In March, fires burned 2,379 square miles of rain
forest in Roraima, including parts of the Yanomami Indian reserve, near
the border with Venezuela.
10 percent of virgin rain forest, covering an area the size of
California, is at risk of catching fire this year, according to the
Environmental Research Institute on the Amazon, an independent group.
fires in Roraima, government officials reversed their
position, acknowledging that fires had indeed become a real threat. They
created special teams to monitor burnings and fight fires, but
environmental groups contend that the effort was too little too late. On
Thursday, the World Bank announced a $15 million emergency project to
fight the fires.
Henrique Cardoso has come under blistering criticism
from environmentalists for putting off enforcement of Brazil's first
Environmental Crimes Law, which was seven years in the making. Steve
Schwartzman, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, called
the order delaying enforcement "a betrayal of everything the government
In July, the
government announced a $30-million plan to monitor burnings
and create fire-fighting teams to control the fires during the burning
season. But it has freed up only a small share of the money, said Joao
Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary of the Socio-Environmental
Institute. "In reality, these projects had a lot of impact in the media, but
very little impact on the ground," he said.
the head of the government's environmental protection
agency, rejected the criticism, accusing the environmentalists of "climatic
opportunism." He added, "More than 1,000 people working on the
problem doesn't signify doing nothing."
But, he said
in a telephone interview, "If you ask me if the prevention for
this burning season was adequate, I'd say no," and he acknowledged that
"with the time that we had after the fires in Roraima, the preparation was
The Amazon rain
forest is home to the world's largest collection of animal
and plant species, as well as troves of bacteria and fungi whose medicinal
and nutritional value have yet to be studied.
counted the new environmental law, which went into effect
April 1, to be Brazil's most significant tool for protecting the environment.
For the first time, it gave a federal agency the authority to enforce
environmental protection statutes, and forced companies to clean up
pollution they had caused. Previously, some 94 percent of government
fines were routinely thrown out by the courts.
But last month,
Cardoso signed an executive order granting industry a
10-year protection from fines and criminal sentences for polluting if they
pledge to remedy the problem. On Wednesday, Cardoso modified the
law once again, reducing the moratorium to a maximum of six years.
environmental protection chief, said he did not see the
moratorium as a step backward. "It's more a signal of maturity than
anything else," he said.